Best ever grass court players? A look back at some legends

by Bren Gray

Wimbledon is just around the corner, and you know what that means: it’s time to talk about the best ever grass court players. 

This debate comes up around June every year, and is one we’re more than happy to dive into.

Who’s the best ever to grace the lawns of tennis? Is it Roger Federer, because of his five straight Wimbledons? Or Pete Sampras with his incredible serve and volley game? What about Novak Djokovic, is he in the conversation at all?

Read on as we unpack the best ever grass court players, looking at who’s stood out over history, and why they get their place in our hall of fame.

The top five best ever grass court players

A few disclaimers before we get into our list of the top five grass court players in history.

Firstly, we haven’t considered players outside of the Open Era. Before 1968, tennis looked very different. Professionals weren’t allowed to compete at Grand Slams, and a high percentage of the action was held on grass courts. This skews statistics heavily (Bill Tilden, for example, won 10 grass Grand Slams).

Secondly, we acknowledge that even with the Open Era, court speeds, racquet technology and overall strength of the Tour varied significantly. This makes comparing different players an inherently flawed task. Take any ranking with a grain of salt, and just see this list for what it is.

Thirdly, we’re just looking at the men here. There have been some brilliant female grass court players over the years (Martina Navratilova still holds the record for the most Wimbledon titles by a man or women). However, when it comes to objective ability on grass, the men on this list are on another level.

With that said, let’s get into our top five best ever grass court players.

5. John McEnroe

John McEnroe is known for being a real handful on the tennis court, with frequent outbursts and temper-tantrums. However, the American was also a brilliant grass court player.

He possessed a wicked ability at the net, and is still regarded as one of the best volleyers the game has ever seen. His rapid reflexes and soft touch were perfectly suited to success on grass, with McEnroe’s game being based around approaching the net as often as possible. His style was unorthodox, but unquestionably successful.

Overall, McEnroe holds the third-highest career win percentage on grass, sitting at 85.816 percent (121 won, 20 lost). This includes three Wimbledon titles in 1981, 1983 and 1984 at a time when both Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors were active. With eight grass titles overall, McEnroe is the fifth best grass court player in history for us.

McEnroe vs Borg

4. Bjorn Borg

Getting his nose ahead of McEnroe is Sweden’s Bjorn Borg (image on top). 

The Swede was one of the first men to dominate the game in the Open Era, and much of his success came on grass. Between 1976 and 1980, Borg won five straight Wimbledons. He was the first to do so, and also became the first in the Open Era to win 11 Grand Slams.

With heavy topspin from both wings–one of the first players to adopt such an approach–Borg was the first big-hitting baseliner to find consistent success on grass. He was a very fit, very consistent player as well, with a sharp serve and volley.

If it wasn’t for Borg’s sudden retirement in 1981 at the age of 25, he could well have ended up much higher on our list. 

A nod must be given to Borg’s rivalry with McEnroe, however. The pair played arguably one of the greatest matches in tennis history in the 1980 Wimbledon final (Borg won 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6). McEnroe got revenge a year later in the 1981 Wimbledon final, which prompted the Swede’s retirement soon after.

3. Novak Djokovic

Now to a name current tennis fans may be more familiar with: Novak Djokovic. While the Serbian is statistically the undisputed greatest player of all time, we rank him as number three on grass.

Djokovic’s play style isn’t uniquely geared towards grass. However, he’s just that good, that consistent, and that capable of grinding players down in rallies, that he’s still a phenomenal grass court player.

The Serbian holds the second-equal number of Wimbledon titles in history, winning seven so far across his career. These include three victories over Roger Federer in the final, and one over Rafael Nadal–two of the greatest to ever play the game

Between 2018 and 2022 Djokovic won four straight Wimbledons, falling in his quest for five straight in the 2023 final against Carlos Alcaraz. Overall, he holds the second-best win percentage on grass (85.821 percent), having won 115 and lost 19 over his career.

2. Pete Sampras

Sitting level with Djokovic for the second-most Wimbledon titles in history is Pete Sampras. We give the American second place in our list of the best ever grass court players, however, thanks to his dominant reign at the Grand Slam.

In the nine years between 1993 to 2001, Sampras accrued an incredible 57-1 record at Wimbledon. This saw him win seven titles in eight years before losing to Federer, and subsequently passing on the torch of grass court dominance.

Overall, Sampras holds 10 grass court titles, with a win percentage in the 90s at Wimbledon. His play style may not be the most compelling–big serve, followed up by an inevitable volley–but it sure was effective. 

1. Roger Federer

In our opinion, the best ever grass court player is Roger Federer.

Why? The Swiss played an incredibly aggressive yet elegant style of play, and has the stats to back it up.

Federer at Wimbledon

First of all, Federer leads the most important metric: Wimbledon titles. He holds eight, the most of all time, with one more than Djokovic and Sampras.

Secondly, he has the most grass court titles by a country mile. To go with his eight Wimbledon crowns, he’s also claimed the Halle Open an amazon 10 times. Throw in one title in Stuttgart, and the Swiss player has a stunning 19 grass court titles.

Thirdly, he holds the best-ever win percentage on grass. Federer has a win-loss of 192-29 on grass courts, meaning that he’s won 86.9 percent of the time he’s competed on the surface. With his career beginning when Sampras was dominant, and ending when Djokovic reigned, Federer did incredibly well to garner the success he did on grass. 

His phenomenal spot serving, beautiful net game and wicked backhand slice were big contributors to this success. Add in a ruthless pursuit of aggressive tennis, and it’s no wonder Federer is the best of all time on grass.

Agree with our list? Let us know in the comments below.

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